An old friend of mine is regularly investigating the medium of performance art as part of a Groningen based loosely binded group that organises performance art events under the name ‘Does It Have A Name’ (DIHAN). The monthly scheduled events have open calls on themes like ‘small things’, or ‘fiction’. Non of it is recorded, so it really comes down to ‘to attend or to not attend’ to be able to have an informed idea of it. I was happy though, in having the opportunity to attend to his most recent performance, when he staged a special personal event on his birthday, in lieu of having a birthday party. Because of Corona-times, it was staged on the internet, via a Facebook live event called ‘art.is.on.the.line’.
The proceedings were as follows: two people, a man and a woman, are sitting in front of each other at a picknick table in a park, half sun half shade of trees. They are being filmed with a smart phone, image quality is low. The weather is fine, and I hear birds singing and young childrens voices, they are clearly playing in the near surroundings. But silence rules the scene, as the man, Michel de Vries and the woman, Hinke-Ann Eleveld, just sit in front of each other and do not speak. They are obviously very aware of each others presence, but seem to not have decided on a direct or focused confrontation with this presence. They sit more or less still, but are obviously not concentrating on not moving or freezing or something similar, as they do not take or settle into any specific bodily position. There is no outline or tension in their bodies of taking a posture. They seem to just to be there, in some unformed, vague way without form. Their hand positions are mirrored, though. Their bodies are subjected to tiny movements by their breathing, and seem sometimes subjected to the light breeze of their envorinment, as the trees casts shadows playing over their white shirts.
It is difficult to see where their gazes are going, but it is clear they don’t look each other directly into the eyes. But also they do not seem to evade eye contact. And for a quarter of an hour this is the situation I’m an audience to.
In this quarter of an hour I don’t know where to look at, where to look for, what I’m expected to process. But for this: they are there, confronting their enlarged consciousness in this specific situation, knowing they are together and opposed, counterparts in something underdetermined and unfixed, as a natural situation, but at the same time overdetermined by the entire set up as art and being watched as performing art.
After 12 or 13 minutes Michel smiles and laughs, and turns silent again seeming tired of the situation as he sinks in on the bench. Another minute of silence, then Hinke-Ann leans back, stretching her back. Michel also leans back, and here the performance finishes. They thank each other, and two other persons join the party, leaving the camera rolling. They start a conversation about what they witnessed out of the perspectives they were having on the situation of the last fifteem minutes. They review the proceedings and what it did to each of them, in terms of feelings and thoughts. It is an aftertalk but seems to be a companion piece to the actual performance. As they are trying to make sense of it, as I do while watching and listening to them.
Michel explains that the piece was to be about the contagiousness of yawning, and the mechanisms behind this phenomenon, that are supposed to have to do with empathy. 1 One of the viewers summarized her views of the performance by that she witnessed a couple confronting each other in having communication troubles, because there was a clear and intense tension. She then saw them not having words but having deep feelings.
Out of their conversation I make up that the intention , the set up of the act, was to relate to each other and the being in company in this situation by starting to experience yawning, and then see what then evolved out of this in terms of relating to each other and the situation. Hinke-Ann explains that she didn’t really yawn fully fledged to start with, but that she felt a yawn inside in her body. She didn’t want to consciously air it out, as she felt being watched, and it didn’t seem natural to exteriorise the yawn. Michel says he started with a small yawn. The yawn is supposed to make you more prone to empathising. One of the viewers says that she felt a yawn coming up during looking, but that she held it back, and that it made her into being occupied with herself, instead of with the others. While I watch them and hear them talk, I notice that only the word ‘yawn’, makes me wanting to stretch my jaws and yawn extensively. And I feel that once I would give in to this feeling and do it, I could go on endlessly, yawn after yawn. I don’t give in.
After ten minutes of aftertalk, Michel reads a spoken word poem titled ‘Empathy 3’, after which they resume their conversation on the performance, on empathy, and on what involving yourself with performative art brings.
The experience of this particular performance piece I just witnessed seems to have brought very different meanings for the four people of the party, and me, here at the other side of the line, alone. For example because the clear stated intention of the performers was that it was to be about to having a relation going on without words, related in some other way to each other, and what the one of the present viewer saw was about the intention to communicated but not being able to communicate because of words failing. And what I experienced was a uncertainty about the relation and situation they were having. I cannot remember clearly anymore whether I wanted to yawn during the piece. What I do remember is that I didn’t know how to sympathise with them. As a performance meant to watch I think you might say that for the viewer it turned out not to be clear or somehow constrained enough. As a performance experiment, a piece of artistic research, it still can be very valuable of course. By the doing of the making, relating to the artist position you can infer what worked for you or didn’t, and devise a new making worthwhile to pursue.
But there is something else to it. Something potentially important, I think. Something that has to do with the account Michel de Vries gives about the importance of doing this performance piece, coupled with the ideas of John Dewey in Art as experience and the lines of thinking Alain Badiou proposes about the potential in the arts to create really new truths. 2
To start with the first point: In the after conversation Michel testifies to the ground that he has covered since he started with involving himself with performance art. He explains this by refering to the recent book of Philippine Hoegen, Thinking through performing (Onomatopee 159, Cabinet Project: Brussel 2020). According to Michel, Hoegen states in this guide book about performance art that performing is a special kind of thinking in which you gather knowledge or insight through doing, within a special kind of situation ‘in which you put yourself at stake’ . The situation is bounded by a set of rules or parameters, and results in something that is not about representation, but about making.
Michel claims that since involving himself with this kind of thinking through performance, he has gained a lot of new knowledge ‘about what life is as such (…)’. 3 In a former series of performances, he investigated questions related to identity, fragmentation, multiplicity. The performance just staged is part of his actual investigation that is not so much about yawning or empathy, but really is about ‘trying to get involved with what groups mean, or what to socialise means’. 4
The peculiar thing about the gaining of this knowledge is thus that is not tightly or one-to-one related to an exact moment of experiment or experience, it can’t be brought down to a moment in time.
Michel doesn’t know where the situation just lived through will bring him, what kind of knowledge there is being gained by him because of it. This will need time to uncover itself or to maybe grow, and maybe will not fully expose itself as to how it is related to the situation he just lived through with this special consciousness of doing an art performance. But something has started.
The discussion about the parameters involved through which this thinking through performing gets possible, in my view puts forward a special vector, namely an heightened or maybe even enhanced awareness in the participants, that ties in with the set rules and creates a special kind of focused consciousness that foregrounds some factors of experience and limits or bans others. And, as Michel testifies to, this results in an experience that has yet to unfold further in its knowledge consequences and cannot be pinned down or taken hold of at one moment.
This reminds of how Dewey formulated his ideas about what art is and what a real experience is, namely that art is about doing and making and thinking in languages of relations. The making is an experience of doing and undergoing, with a reflective consciousness present to assess the experience. Where Dewey thinks of art experiences in terms of classical discipline based art, the performance art Michel and the other participants are discussing, seems to me Dewey pured of material and object. But Dewey limited the concept of having a meaningful and real experience as follows: ‘Experience is limited by all the causes which interfere with perception of the relations between doing and undergoing. There may be interference because of excess on the side of the doing or of excess of the side of receptivity, of undergoing. Unbalance on either side blurs the perception of relations and leaves the experiment partial and distorted, with scant or false meaning’. 5 He identified the having a real experience in that it could be assessed in terms of a conscious awareness of unity, of a continuous process of cognitive consciousness relating the realised parts to the whole.
Where Dewey’s thinking was about taking art of its detached pedestal position and taking it as part of our life as it exemplied learning by doing, and this to be the way of how we learn in general, for Badiou art has a very different importance for us in the world. The ideas of Badiou give art a very different and profound revolutionary potential.
In his book Badiou Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts, Alex Ling explains this with the example , inter alia, of how Duchamp’s readymade The Fountain revolted the art world, and brought about a complete new idea of what art is. 6 This occurrence was what Badiou calls ‘an event’, an important concept of his philosophy, and in other words ‘a localized and unpredictable rupture with the order of things, involving the sudden arrival on the scene of a radically un-known element, (an element whose adress is,
, (an element whose adress is, for complex reasons 7 , immediately universal) the consequences of which may come to affect the entire situation’. 8 Only by cause of an event reallynew knowledge becomes possible. Because of this it would be crucial to know whether an event has taken place. But you can’t know whether such an event has happened, because it will be hidden by the dominant knowledge structure, in Badiou’s terms ‘the state’, and can only be revealed to have taken place by way of a trace it leaves behind. This trace generally takes ‘the form of a pronouncement about the new possibilities’ the event created. 9
The ideas of Badiou form a vast and complex philosophical system, and pursuing his ideas about the event in more detail would take me too far from the issue I want to put forward here. My present purpose is not so much to contrast a Deweyian take to the ‘thinking through performing’-process Michel is pursuing with his performances with a Badiouian perspective, but to merge them as they seem to describe the process Michel is describing and which forms the engine of his art.
In Dewey’s conception of the experience that artists use to make a new, well-formed and artistically valuable art work, consciousness takes central stage (although the consciousness involved can be a bodily form of knowing as in the art of the craftsman). In each stage of the making process, this takes on the form of relating of the parts to the whole. Thus the outcome can be something new, but the steps toward the new can constantly be brought down to terms of knowing. It thus could be seen as a holistic account of art, but of course it is difficult to see how something really entirely new could be made in such a process of weaving of relations. Badiou does not start from individual cognitive processes, but investigates on a transcending level how change is possible, change as a breach, as a fracture that brings something that before was unthinkable.
I propose this blending of Dewey and Badiou to describe the project in the light of which Michel’s performance should be placed: the enhanced awareness that is brought about by the performance set up creates a well formed experience in situ. The relations are unknown or vague but can during the proceedings, the process, become more clear. You can take the performance-experience up as process art in which the participants are the material that is put in together with time to have its course. Because you have put yourself at stake in encountering the yet unknown, the event becomes possible at a micro scale, enfolded within the process, within the participants. It is here that new knowledge can become available, and it is here that the transformative power of art is exemplified. This transformative power firstly within the partcipants, as their lived experiences cristallise into new knowledge, offering them new starting point for thinking, but secondly also in proposing a new way of positing art into society, and our ways of living, parallelling to what often is proposed by recommending meditation practices.
To characterize this type of performance art at large: it is seasoned in the Fluxus tradition, it does not want to make objects, but take art as part of life, out of commercial and elitist domains. It is via a practice un-knowing directed towards the unknown, and towards the new. It can be seen as a form of process art, but takes as material the consciousness or awareness of the participants. The participants can be active or passively involved, but it takes a certain kind of reflective consciousness and informed position to be able to take part. This is why, just as with the Fluxus art, life and art can be brought together and merge and pervade each other, and art is not the reserve of an elite who ca afford it but is at the dispose of everybody, but that at the same time it is a highly exclusive practise for those who are initiated.
I would like to give another example of a comparable stand towards performance, although it has a more theatrical stain.
Relating to my own experience with performance, I recognise the transforming potential in it, that can’t be truly assessed in terms of defined knowledge. A couple of months ago I staged a theatrical performance on the occasion of the presentation of my research into my own artistic signature (Master of Arts Education – feb. 2020). Within an installation or exhibition of an array of meaningful products of artistic experience I performed, in short description, a sort of rebirthing process. It started out with visual-theatrical devises of symbolisation of elements at play, I stepped into the unknown, physically embodied by being naked in confrontation with an audience I didn’t know how to interact with, speechless and directionless. The nakedness was very complete as tried to give form and kept on trying. In the end I rested my case and lay down, accepting the situation as was.
Doing the presentation this way was a very intuitive step, and had no thought out scenario or thought through principle. I just knew it was the proper thing to do at the very moment the idea came up, at the a few hours in advance of the presentation. I knew I had to be naked, and that I wanted to use something to bodypaint myself, having to do with different aspects of myself and the growing to be. Not having had a formal training as an artist and limited experience, the visual foregrounding or externalization of the created lived situation perhaps could be said failing, (I have not heard anybody saying this and it’s difficult from my perspective to evaluate this), and it was a performance in a private setting, directed at a limited public of relative insiders. At the same time there were different layers in it that had positively narrative content and relating in diverse ways as parts to the whole, in an interesting way, at the time sensible to the audience as effectively signalling or pointing to ideas about the processes involved in my investigation of my artistic signature, and providing me with insights and in due time with new knowledge and possible new starting points in thinking it over and relating to it anew.
1 Later on when I look up again the registration of the live event at Facebook, I see the performance spoken of as ‘On empathy 2’. https://www.facebook.com/bergerendevries/posts/3077197785693355? tn =K-R, accessed at 28-5-2020
2 See for example: Alex Ling, Badiou Reframed : Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts (2016)
3 Facebook live event, video accessed at 28-5-2020, see at 55.55 min https://www.facebook.com/noartjustlife/videos/250501709567282/
4 Ibid., see at 56:44 min
5 John Dewey, Art as experience (New York Penguin Perigree paperback edition 2005 (1934)) p.46
6 Alex Ling, Badiou Reframed : Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts (2016) p. 68
7 But a key element for the immediate universality of this adress seems to lie in an inherent open access.
8 Ibid., p. 69